Nicoli Nattrass Profile
Nicoli Nattrass (Natal & Magdalen 1984) is a professor of economics and sociology at the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town. She has published widely in the areas of economic policy and the political economy of AIDS, including her award-winning book ‘The Moral Economy of AIDS in South Africa.’ She holds a DPhil in Economics and an MSc in Development Economics from the University of Oxford, an M.A. in Social Science from the University of Natal, and a B.A. from Stellenbosch University.
Rhodes Project: How would you describe your time at Oxford? What were significant experiences for you?
Nicoli Nattrass: On the academic side, the most significant aspect of my time at Oxford was working with the leftist economist Andrew Glyn (who supervised my doctorate) and Keith Griffin, a prominent development economist. Andrew was the economist for the mine workers during the 1984 mine-workers strike and I found his engagement with policy and his concern for social justice truly inspiring. Keith likewise taught me that economics could be used to improve the world and he gave me this excellent advice: ‘live each day as if it was your last, and study as if you will live forever.’ On the personal side, the most important experience by far was meeting my future husband, Jeremy Seekings. He and I have been married for 26 years and we have written books and articles together.
Rhodes Project: How did the political economy of antiretroviral treatment and the cultural and behavioural aspects of AIDS become your academic passion?
Nicoli Nattrass: I live in South Africa, the country with the greatest number of HIV-positive people in the world. In the late 1990s, deaths from AIDS were peaking yet the government was slow to react. I was infuriated by the government’s argument that it could not afford to implement mother to child transmission prevention. This prompted me to do an economic assessment showing that the government would actually save lives – and save money for the health sector because there would be fewer people sick with AIDS – if it rolled out a program to prevent HIV-positive mothers from passing HIV on to their babies. My analysis was used for the Treatment Action Campaign’s successful legal action against the South African state to force it to provide antiretroviral drugs to pregnant women. My subsequent work showed that it would also be cost-effective to provide long-term treatment to people living with HIV.
Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about your work as Director of the AIDS and Society Research Unit (ASRU) within the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town?
Nicoli Nattrass: I am no longer Director of ASRU. This job has passed on to Rebecca Hodes, also an Oxford graduate. She is working on reproductive health and is a co-principal investigator (with Oxford partners) on the largest study of adolescents on antiretroviral treatment in the world. I am very pleased she has taken over ASRU. This has allowed me to go back to my earlier interests in the political-economy of labour markets in South Africa and I am currently completing a book with Jeremy on the destruction of jobs in the clothing sector. I am also developing new interests in human-wildlife conflict and have been working with farmers in the dry interior Karoo to learn more about the problems they face from predation by caracals and jackals. I am really enjoying working with scholars from the biological sciences who are helping me understand the ecology of these animals as I learn more from the farmers about their socioeconomic circumstances.
Rhodes Project: You are a vocal advocate against AIDS denialism and conspiracy theories that undermine scientific approaches to HIV treatment. What issues around HIV prevention and AIDS treatment are you reflecting on most at the moment?
Nicoli Nattrass: I have written three books on AIDS, and all of them touched to varying degrees on the terrible consequences of AIDS denialism. AIDS denialists undermine confidence in science and encourage people to opt for ineffective, alternative treatments. AIDS denialism kills people. South Africa’s tragedy during the Mbeki presidency was that AIDS denialism undermined the rollout of treatment and about a third of a million people died unnecessarily as a result. Fortunately, things have changed and South Africa now has the largest treatment program in the world. I am still interested in AIDS denialism and related attacks on the legitimacy of medical science but I do not have active research projects in this area. I still do a bit of work on health, and am currently exploring which African countries have achieved better than expected (given their level of development) basic health care coverage.
Rhodes Project: Over the course of your academic career, what are the experiences or projects that stand out for you?
Nicoli Nattrass: My work on mother to child transmission prevention was a key milestone. By helping to change policy, it actually helped save lives—a rather unusual achievement for academic work. My ongoing research with Jeremy Seekings has also been very rewarding. Although you end up arguing about academic articles and research methodology in addition to those everyday domestic irritations, like who should do the washing up, it is great to have a life partner with whom you can share so much intellectually.
Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to young women in academia?
Nicoli Nattrass: Take seriously the option of not having children. Young women seem to be unnecessarily anxious about reproduction, opting to have children just in case they regret it later. I don’t have children and I have never regretted it. I can see that children can be rewarding but my child-free existence has allowed me to do a lot more travel (especially outside of school holidays), reading, writing, and engaging in social and environmental activism than my child-burdened contemporaries. In my view, life can be wonderful with children, but also wonderful and meaningful without them. Only have children if you really, really, want them. And to help save the planet, please don’t have more than two.
Rhodes Project: What do you imagine the next ten years of your life will look like? Professionally, are there specific issues you want to focus on?
Nicoli Nattrass: I am trying to carve out more time for research, and shed administrative responsibilities (such as giving up the Directorship of ASRU). I am hoping to develop greater expertise in human-wildlife conflict, and would like to expand my work on jackals and sheep farmers in South Africa to include conflict between villagers and tigers in India, and between wolves and sheep farmers and hunters in the United States. I am increasingly concerned about the destruction of wild places and the failure of conservation policies to deal constructively with human-wildlife conflict. Like my work on AIDS, I am adopting an inter-disciplinary approach that takes science and social science seriously. I hope that this work will help make a difference, and that we will be able to find ways of supporting wildlife (including predators) and sustainable agricultural livelihoods.
Back to Scholar Profiles K-N